To hear many tell it — especially among the Trump faithful — the dangers of COVID-19 have been overblown, at least for persons who aren’t already sick or elderly. The odds of younger, healthier folks falling seriously ill or dying from the virus are so remote, they insist, it makes no sense to continue lockdowns for most Americans. Let those with pre-existing conditions remain sheltered if they choose, according to this bunch, but as for the rest of us, it’s time to get back to work.
While much of this narrative has relied on evidence from conspiracy websites, thoroughly discredited research, or no evidence at all, some among the open-it-back-up brigades — especially voices in the right-wing media ecosystem — have turned to hard data to make their case.
But when you look at the statistics upon which they rely and apply a bit of critical thought to what they mean, you realize they are misrepresenting the numbers, hoping the public will ignore the glaring weaknesses of their arguments.
To wit, the right has seized upon information from New York, which they believe torpedos the validity of lockdowns. First, let’s look at the data, and then consider why right-wing interpretations of the statistics make no sense.
- Two-thirds said they became sick after sheltering-in-place at home and observing lockdown orders;
- three out of five were over the age of 60;
- nearly half were officially unemployed at the time of hospitalization;
- only 17 percent had a job at the time they fell ill; and
- almost all (96 percent) had an underlying health issue.
To the COVID denialists, this demonstrates the lack of danger to younger, healthier and employed persons, and suggests we should begin opening things back up. And since most hospitalizations were of people who had been staying at home, this, they say, proves the lockdowns don’t work anyway.
As FOX’s Greg Gutfeld put it, “the disease came and got them” at home, and “staying home doesn’t help anymore after we flattened this curve.” Others in the Trumpian media bubble have referred to people’s homes as “Petri dishes” for the virus, and as such, insist it would be best to get everyone out of the house and back to their jobs.
But while a simple reading of the data might seem to make such conclusions reasonable, they are entirely without merit. Here’s why:
- Just because people who became ill had mostly been at home before hospitalization doesn’t mean their homes were the problem, or that it’s safe to lift lockdown orders. Most people were at home before hospitalization because home is where most people…wait for it…live. In other words, two-thirds were in their own homes as opposed to nursing facilities, assisted living, prisons, or on the street. No kidding.
- The fact they had been mostly following lockdown orders doesn’t mean lockdowns don’t work, let alone that one’s home is where the danger is. It’s not as if COVID magically materializes in people’s kitchens. Those who become infected came in contact with an infected person or viral particles on some surface. In other words, they either contracted it on one of the occasions they ventured from home, despite mostly remaining sheltered (perhaps to the grocery) or from coming in contact with someone in their apartment building or neighborhood when out for a walk. If anything, the fact that so many still became infected despite being locked down almost all the time, shows how much worse things would be if people’s interactions multiplied by factors of 5, 10 or 100 due to opening back up.
- If people’s homes should be viewed as Petri dishes for the virus, what would a work environment be? At least in your home, the confined space is host to only you or your immediate family. In an office or other establishment, you have the same limited space issue, the same recirculated air, but now with dozens or hundreds of people coming into that space during the day.
- The fact that most of the hospitalized are older and with pre-existing conditions is no surprise. But it doesn’t mean that opening everything back up would be advisable. Older and sicker people are not hermits and shut-ins who never leave the house. They go to the grocery like anyone else. They venture outside for recreation, and many still work to support families. Not to mention, in places like New York City, they live in the same buildings as younger and healthier folks. So if the latter return to normal, even though those younger, healthier folks might not fall seriously ill and become hospitalized, they will be more likely to transmit the virus to older and sicker people with whom they still come in contact.
- As for virtually all of the hospitalized having pre-existing health conditions, this doesn’t mean that only persons at death’s door are at risk. The CDC estimates that around 45 percent of Americans fall into categories that put them at high risk from the coronavirus. This includes people with diabetes, persons with high blood pressure, heart disease, asthma, or auto-immune disorders. If we include those who are obese, which is another high-risk factor, it would push the numbers above half of all Americans who fall into risky groups. To remain nonchalant about the risks to the general public, when people with pre-existing health problems are the general public, is extraordinarily short-sighted.
- As for the fact that most persons hospitalized were unemployed at the time of illness, this hardly proves that getting employed people back to work is safe. One of the reasons so many of the hospitalized are out of work is that so many have lost their jobs, especially in lower-wage positions like retail, hospitality, and food and beverage jobs. So naturally, with large numbers of such people out of work, a disproportionate share of current hospitalizations will be of the unemployed. Additionally, those who are still working are persons who are the most likely to wear masks and other protective gear to avoid infection. Although front-line health care providers are exposed to the virus at a higher rate than the general population, they are also the most protected. Delivery workers and grocery workers are taking considerable protective measures too. But if everyone started working again, many of whom would not be as likely to mask, exposure would rise among the employed as well, and those hospitalization numbers would begin to change.
- Finally, this data — like any survey covering only a few days — merely provides a snapshot in time, reflecting the dynamics present at a particular moment. But at this particular moment, those dynamics include widespread lockdowns and curve-flattening measures. Lift those lockdowns and relax those measures, and the dynamics will shift. Extrapolating from the current numbers to the future, even if lockdowns are eased, makes no sense. It would be like arguing that because you walked around this morning in a rainstorm with an umbrella and didn’t get wet, we can presume you’d remain just as dry if you put away the umbrella.
Bottom line: although people are understandably concerned about the economic impact of prolonged lockdowns, it is not in the interest of public health or the economy to open things back up based on false optimism. If we re-open without the proper understanding of the risks involved, many will die, and the economy will fail to recover as millions of Americans remain understandably afraid to engage in active commerce for risk of infection.
The right-wing media is working overtime to convince the public that all is well, but they are either too dense to understand the data they deploy for this purpose or know full well they are being deceptive and don’t care. Either way, the results could be tragic. Whether ignorance or their indifference is the problem, the result is the same: the MAGA media is putting millions of people at risk for the sake of their politics and the president.
The American public deserves better. Our lives and our health are more important than their ideology.